Air travel tips: 50 tips on how to make your flight perfect

More people are flying than ever - and no wonder. Modern flying offers a magic carpet ride into new worlds. But flying has also become more crowded, less personal - and with issues of safety and security of increasing concern. A little insider knowledge can make all the difference. Here are 50 tips from The Tripologist to help you fly smarter.

It's cramped, noisy, dries the skin and frizzes your hair, but flying is the magic carpet that makes our holiday dreams a reality. Leave home in the morning and by evening you can be sipping a cocktail at Ozone, 118 floors above Hong Kong, or by the pool of your Balinese villa, becoming one of world's slightly more than 3 billion passengers flown by airlines, based on 2014 numbers.

As a measure of the growth in flying, and its importance to our lives, a decade ago that passenger figure was less than 1.9 billion. Australians are taking to the skies more often than ever, benefiting from lower airfares and more tantalising destination choices. 

Along with its popularity, the flying experience has become more challenging, more crowded, less personal - and with issues of safety and security of increasing concern. But a little insider knowledge can make all the difference. Here are 50 tips from The Tripologist to help you fly smarter.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

How do I check my airline's safety record?

Airsafe (airsafe.com) maintains a database of airline crashes where you can check most airlines' safety record. The Full Loss Equivalent (FLE) column gives a rough guide to the probability of a fatal crash when flying with a particular airline. Qantas shines with an index of zero.

Has economy class seating shrunk?

On a typical flight out of Australia today, seat pitch – the distance between any point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front - is 78-86 centimetres. On a similar flight aboard a Boeing 707 in the late 1960s, it was 86-91cm. Domestic flights today offer as little as 71cm aboard some Jetstar aircraft. Seat backs are narrower on modern aircraft, which helps, but we're bigger than we were in the 1960s, and broader. Seats are no wider than they were in the 1960s.

How do I get an upgrade on an economy ticket?

Many airlines allow you to upgrade at a discount on the full price of a premium economy or business class fare, paying with cash or air mileage points. Qantas has recently introduced "Bid Now Upgrades", which allows passengers on selected flights the chance to upgrade using a mix of Qantas Frequent Flyer points and cash. Eligible passengers will be notified by email if a Bid Now upgrade is available. This is similar to Virgin Australia's UpgradeMe Premium Bid system. Some airlines such as Etihad, Virgin, Thai and Cathay Pacific will upgrade you for cash at the check-in desk if there are unsold seats.

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What's the protocol for reclining your seat?

Most aircraft seats are made to recline, and passengers have every right to seek a more comfortable position, but do unto others, etc. During meals, it is polite and necessary to return your seat to the upright position. Since a reclined seat might annoy the person behind, before you hit the button ensure you are not about to inflict an injury and offer a smile.

How far in advance should I book my ticket?

Airlines usually release tickets 11 months in advance and these earlybird fares are the time to scout a bargain. Lowest priced economy-class fares are limited and  are the first to go. Short of a major terrorist event or a financial crash that put the brakes on travel, airfares get more expensive as departure time approaches.

What gives with inflight Wi-Fi?

Several carriers including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Etihad, Philippine Airlines, JAL, Garuda and United offer inflight Wi-Fi on most flights out of Australia. For a modest fee, or free in the case of Emirates, passengers with a compliant device can enjoy all the wonders that the internet brings to your fingertips. Download speeds depend on the number of users onboard, and you won't be streaming video, but email is fine and even VOIP calls are usually feasible.

What are the new rules for use of personal electronic devices?

Many airlines allow the use of  mobiles, tablets and e-readers at all times, known as the gate-to-gate facility. However, devices capable of transmitting and receiving signals must be switched to flight mode. Some airlines still require all devices to be turned off until notified.

How clean is aircraft seating?

Most likely about as clean as a seat on a bus or at a café table.  Aircraft are generally cleaned more diligently when they are halted for several hours but not on a quick turnaround. Your tray table probably got a wipe some time in the past 24 hours, this is not the first time your earphones have sat on a head and no, those blankets do not get laundered for every flight. Washing hands before meals is a good idea, and don't even think of padding around the cabin without footwear.

Do commercial flights still operate over Iraq and Syria?

According to Flight Radar and Plane Finder websites, a small number of airlines overfly areas that are riven by conflict, and in some cases, where ISIL exercises control on the ground. Most of these carriers are based in Syria and Iraq. Many more of the airlines operating between the Gulf States and Europe fly over the Arabian Peninsula or via an air corridor over western Iran.

What's the best flight search and booking website?

Matrix Airfare Search, Kayak, Momondo, Hipmunk, Skyscanner and Expedia all have strengths and weaknesses, but they won't necessarily give you the same fare, even when they respond to your query with the same route, on the same day and aboard the same airline. Only by scouring multiple search engines will you find the rock-bottom airfare. Since these search engines earn a commission if you proceed to a booking, they do not usually scan for flights aboard budget airlines.

SAFETY & SECURITY

Is flying becoming less safe?

The trend line for airline deaths plotted against the number of passengers clearly shows that flying becomes safer every decade.

Can an aircraft ditch into water with no loss of life?

They can and do. The most celebrated case took place in 2009,  when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed a US Airways Airbus A320 on New York's Hudson River. All on board safely evacuated the aircraft. 

What would happen if an aircraft door was opened inflight?

At cruise altitude on a jet-powered flight, the cabin would rapidly depressurise and anyone not strapped in could be sucked out. However, aircraft doors must first open inward and to do that, you'd need to overcome the difference between the low pressure outside the aircraft and the higher pressure inside, which would be impossible.

How often is the aircraft on autopilot?

At cruise altitude the aircraft is likely to be on autopilot but for takeoff and landing, you can bet your pilot and copilot are doing the flying.

How close can commercial aircraft fly?

At cruising altitude, over Europe, North America, parts of Asia and Africa and both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, required vertical separation is 1000 feet. In controlled airspace, horizontal separation between aircraft flying at the same altitude is just over nine kilometres.

What's deep vein thrombosis, and how do I avoid it?


Passengers on long-haul flights are at a risk of developing DVT because lack of mobility can cause blood clots, which pose a risk if the clot travels through the heart and into the lungs, where the result is potentially fatal. The most effective prevention is to move around the cabin at regular intervals and drink plenty of water, and sit in an aisle seat, where it's easier to move around.

FLYING STRATEGIES

How can I survive long-haul travel with infants and small kids?

Book seats early to make sure you're all together, say if you need a bassinet and get to the airport early, it's first-come, first-served. Pack favourite snacks and don't overload on sugary treats and sweetened drinks. Small children need to be occupied so take colouring books, toys, games or videos downloaded to a tablet, whatever it takes.

What's the safest way to fly with an infant?

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority allows airline passengers to use an infant belly belt, which fastens around the infant's waist and attaches to the parent's belt. These are banned in the US for safety reasons. Many infant car seats are certified for air travel and this is a safer option but it involves buying  an airline seat. A compact choice is the CARES Child Aviation Restraint System (caresaustralia.com.au).

Is there an economy class where infants and children are banned?

On its A330 flights, Air Asia offers a Quiet Zone, a separate cabin behind business class where children under 10 are not permitted. ScootinSilence is a similar offering from Singapore-based carrier Scoot. Both options come at a modest premium.

Is economy-class comfort possible?

Book the best available seat in advance using Seatguru (seatguru.com). Take earplugs, eye drops, moisturiser and books, e-zines, music and videos on a portable electronic device and your own headphones.

How do I score an exit row seat?

Many airlines sell their exit row seats, and the price for that extra stretch space is relatively modest. Check for "preferred seating" on your airline's website. You can also put on your best smile and ask nicely at check-in.

Is a stopover a good idea?

Adding to the agony of the long-haul flight to Europe, many flights arrive in the morning, too early to get into your hotel room. If you take a morning flight out of Australia, stop for 8-10 hours in an airport hotel in Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong and catch another morning flight on to Europe you'll arrive fresher and in late afternoon, and sail straight to your hotel room.

Which airline offers the widest seats on long-haul flights out of Australia?

According to the Flight Guru website, Singapore Airlines' seats are a standard 48.25cm aboard the Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A380 aircraft operating out of Australia. Surveys suggest that seat width is as vital as legroom for a comfortable passenger experience.

What suitcases offer baggage-theft protection?

Hinged metal cases such as the Rimowa and Zero Halliburton aluminium cases are the gold standard. While they're just about impossible for a thief to crack open, they cost $1000-plus for the larger models and weigh more than 5 kilograms.

How do I sleep in economy on a long-haul flight?

A window seat gives something to lean against, and you won't be disturbed by fellow passengers wanting out. Take earplugs, a soft eye mask, a neck pillow and a pashmina or woolen shawl and your chances are good.

PASSENGER RIGHTS

Who can I complain to if my airline won't address my complaint?

The Airline Customer Advocate (airlinecustomeradvocate.com.au), is an independent body established to represent the interests of Australia's airline customers.

Am I entitled to compensation if I'm denied boarding?

In EU countries and North America, an airline that denies boarding to a passenger who has complied with the airline's boarding requirements is legally obliged to offer compensation. In Australia, no such law exists and Australian Consumer Law offers only general consumer protection for air passengers.

What happens if the airline goes bankrupt after I've paid for my ticket?

In Australia there is no statutory protection. A standard travel insurance policy offers limited compensation at best. If you've paid using a credit card rather than a debit card, your card provider might be your best option. Clients who book with Mobile Travel Agents Australia are guaranteed full refunds if the operator becomes insolvent.

Can I trust websites that promise huge discounts on business and first class airfares?

Websites such as Fly Business for Less offer business class tickets aboard leading carriers at about half price. All such operations work by harvesting air mileage points from credit card transactions or loyalty schemes and using these to buy flight bookings. There is a small risk you might be denied boarding but for many it's one worth taking.

Why do one-way tickets cost almost as much as a return fare?

Airlines want to ensure you're sitting in one of their seats for both legs of your journey. While major carriers discount the full-economy price of return airfares, one-way fares are charged at full price.

Why does it cost significantly more to fly to London than Paris?

The British government's Air Passenger Duty for all departing economy-class passengers is £71 on flights to the UAE and beyond, double for other classes. France's Civil Aviation Tax for those passengers is just €7.92, regardless of flight class.

How can I source an affordable business class seat?

Try Optiontown (optiontown.com). It puts you into a seat at the pointy end of the aircraft at a skimpy price, selling unsold business seats to economy passengers aboard Air Asia, Air India, SAS and a few other international carriers. You'll be notified by email shortly before departure, which might not be until you're in the check-in queue, and if your upgrade fails, you get a full refund.

Are pay-for-use lounges worth it?

Only rarely do they come anywhere close to the food, beverages and amenities that world-class airlines offer in their business lounges. An exception might be lounges that offer shower-only facilities. For just a few dollars they offer an instant pick-up to jaded travellers between flights.

Where should I buy duty-free alcohol on my way back to Australia?

Either at the last airport immediately before Australia, onboard the aircraft or at the duty-free store for incoming passengers. Some overseas airports have a final security inspection at the boarding gate. Alcohol bought at another airport will be confiscated.

PUZZLES AND MYSTERIES

Why don't airlines enforce their rules for carry-ons?

Airlines need to tread with caution before they suddenly play policeman. The terminal floor becomes littered with passengers repacking their check-ins, and then possibly exceeding baggage limits. Sorting out the mess causes delays, and check-in staff face a tsunami of passenger rage.

Why do aircraft still have an ashtray in the toilet?

If a passenger breaks the rules and lights up in the toilet, it's better that they stub out in an ashtray rather than in the waste paper bin. Fire in a waste bin is believed to have caused a fire on a 1973 Varig flight, when 123 passengers died.

What are the rules for cabin window shades?

Window shades must be up for takeoff and landing as a safety measure. Cabin crew are likely to request blinds closed on long sectors. During daylight, closed shades offer enhanced viewing for passengers who want to watch videos.

Why are cabin lights dimmed?

On night takeoff and landing, so that passengers' eyes are accustomed to darkness. In case of an emergency evacuation, it's an advantage if passengers' eyesight is attuned to darkness.

Who controls cabin temperature?

The pilot sets broad parameters, which lie within about 20-28 degrees, but fine-tuning is up to the flight crew, who will generally set it at 22-23 degrees. If the temperature drops to 20 degrees passengers start to complain.

What gets left out from inflight movies?

Airlines edit inflight entertainment based on the tolerances of their audience. Nudity or profanities are unlikely to offend European audiences, but extreme violence might. With Asian fliers, it might be the other way round. Nudity and references to pork are likely to be cut on a Middle-Eastern airline.

How much does air travel contribute to CO2 emissions?

A return flight from Melbourne to London creates a warming effect equivalent to 16.8 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. To reach the same emission figure in a medium-size, petrol-engine vehicle, you'd need to drive 90,600 kilometres.

What do international airlines do with half-finished bottles of expensive wines?

They go down the gurgler before the aircraft lands. Customs regulations prevent incoming aircraft from landing with opened bottles of booze so they're dumped, usually down the toilet.

MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Flying has become more expensive

In dollars, yes, but not in real terms. In 2015, it takes a worker on the average Australian wage two weeks of after-tax income to earn enough to buy a return economy-class ticket to Europe. In 1935, a manager on an average salary would take 70 weeks to earn the same fare. The real cost has been on a downward slope between those two extremes ever since.

The pilot isn't doing anything - it's the autopilot that flies the aircraft

Autopilots are great at performing a number of tasks, such as maintaining bearing, speed and engine thrust, but they're only tools, and the pilot makes the decision when and how to use those tools. They're essentially computers, and they need a human to tell them what to do.

I can catch Ebola from sitting next to an infected person on a plane

You could, but health experts suggest you'd have to try hard. Unlike flu, Ebola is not an airborne virus. Ebola is transmitted by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Once outside the body the virus has a short life.

Pilots reduce airflow and oxygen to the cabin to save fuel and keep passengers docile

On most aircraft the volume and rate of airflow are set to "auto", and that's where they stay. Only in the event of a systems malfunction would flight crew modify the levels.

An aircraft can fall hundreds of metres in severe turbulence

Flight crews class turbulence as light, moderate or severe. Severe is exceptionally rare, but it can cause an aircraft to drop up to 30 metres.

Drinking alcohol on an aircraft boosts its effects

Your blood alcohol reading will be the same whether you drink a half-litre of wine at a barbecue or inflight, but due to thinner air in an aircraft cabin, you'll probably feel the effects more. 

Human waste can be ejected from an aircraft during flight

Waste from aircraft toilets goes into a holding tank. Very occasionally, a tank might rupture and seeping waste will form ice on the outside of the tank. On rare occasions, the ice will break off and fall to the ground. 

A lighting strike can cause an aircraft to crash

When lightning hits an aluminium-skinned aircraft, the charge flows through the skin to an exit point, generally the tail. Computers, wiring, flight instruments and the interior of the aircraft are shielded. Modern aircraft with composite skins have conducting material embedded in the composite.

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